Need for Speed World, from EA Black Box and EA Singapore is a perfect example: the game is free to play until level 10, at which point you need to have purchased the US$20 starter pack in order to progress further.
In situations like this, the question is; what lies beyond that magical barrier that makes it worth twenty bones? In the case of Need for Speed World, the answer is not much.
NFSW is an online street-racer in the same vein of other games in the Need for Speed series. When it’s not about racing, it’s about avoiding the long, wheeled arm of the law. The game purports to be massively multiplayer and open world, and in some sense it is both of those. The world is indeed open, and as you drive through it you’ll see a great many players, but that is where the ties to the MMO genre seem to end. The ability for you, the player, to interact with other players in this open world is minimal. You can talk to them, compare your stats, invite them to a match or a group, and that’s about it. That would probably be enough under most circumstances, but NFSW is a racing game, and as such has no real cooperative mode, so grouping up becomes pretty much useless.
Gameplay in Need for Speed World is broken down into four parts – at least according to the power-up menu. The first is exploration, where you can drive around the game’s city and…well, that’s it. Exploration is really just how you get from place to place, although even that can be circumvented by simply using the game’s map to teleport to a race location or join from a distance, leaving the mode almost entirely without purpose.
The next two gameplay bits are Sprints and Circuits. Both are simply race types. Sprints are a race from point A to point B, and circuits are a series of laps. Racers need to contend with traffic, and the machinations of other players and their dastardly power-ups. This is the meat of the game.
Races are all instanced and isolated from the city proper by magic arrow-covered glowing walls that prevent you from taking alternate routes to the finish line. They’re all pretty linear, with a couple shortcuts that, if you want to win, you have to take. The courses are well designed and frequently have interesting turns and scenery. That said, they also don’t at all resemble anything that would exist in a real city.
Win or lose, players are rewarded with cash, which lets players buy cars and customize them, and rep, which acts as experience does in other games. When a player gets enough rep (and there is no obvious indicator to tell you exactly how much that is), they level up and unlock new races, cars, customization options and a skill point.
The fourth mode – which is also the most gripping and entertaining of them all – is pursuit, in which you basically flee the law. The car AI is decent enough, although the method of being caught via a filling meter down the bottom of your screen can be infuriating. Basically, the closer a cop car is, the higher the meter fills. Once it is full, you’re ‘busted’ and penalized financially (though you still get a little rep). There will be many, many times when you have an opening to escape and simply because the meter was too close to full, you’ll be ‘busted’ before you gather enough speed to make the meter go back down. I definitely spent the majority of my time doing this, not only because it was far more fun than the races tended to be, but because it was also capable of giving you more rep and money. It’s a bad sign when, rather than actually enjoy the game, you find yourself exploiting terrain to simply level up as fast as possible.
Upgrades and new cars are few and far between. As it stands, the max level is 50, and there are very large gaps between levels when you unlock a new car or a new upgrade. The grinds in between those feel too long, as you still only have the same handful of tracks to race on. By level 14, it was taking me about twenty victories in completely packed races to level up. With a limited number of available races, a small gain in rep for each victory, and very little incentive to level up until you get a new car or upgrade, running the same laps over and over begins to get very tedious.
Participating in races and evading the cops also rewards players with a random powerup. This was a particularly missed opportunity, as currently the game has no player-driven economy. Players earn money that can only be spent in the game’s store – no trades between players can be made. This feels like something that could have been very easily fixed by simply having things like car modifications as rare-drops from the end-of-race rewards, and allowing players to trade them. Instead, they’re simply bought and used and there isn’t enough player interaction.